**Talkeetna, Alaska, is the traditional land of the Dena’ina Athabaskan. I acknowledge and show my gratitude for their generations of stewardship.**
In the late 1960s, my grandparents started work on their homestead in Talkeetna, Alaska. Built from birch logs and repurposed military supplies, the home is a testament to one couple’s tenacity and commitment to a shared dream. We like to say that my grandpa was “an artist, not an engineer” and the elaborate, but undeniably quirky, log home reminds us of that often. Today, it is a challenging, multi-generational family project. We benefit from and struggle with, the building decisions made over 50 years ago. I am grateful to carry on my grandparents’ vision even as I sit annoyed in the mosquito-filled living room writing this post.
For me, this home embodies the spirit of Alaska’s state motto: “North to the Future.” I believe there’s some truth in the statement not because Alaskans are the smartest, wealthiest, or most talented, but because we are stubbornly determined to make it so. The motto is imbued with agency. Alaska is our shared future and its residents endeavor to shape it with whatever resources and skills we have available.
Over the past five years, Alaskan CS educators have put that attitude to the test as we have worked to expand access to CS education and teacher training across the state. If this sounds like a Herculean task, you’d be right; the vast physical distances between colleagues and making contact with CS educators remain two of our greatest challenges. For some of us on this team, we were just as qualified to teach CS are we would have been to start a homestead (which is not at all). What we did have was excitement about CS education, both the content and the opportunities it could afford Alaskan students.
How we built a home for CS education in Alaska:
At the foundation of our vision are people: energetic, relentless, and committed to equity. The handful of programs and pathways that have been started are led by tech directors, outreach coordinators, and teachers from a variety of subject areas (English, Math, Journalism, and even Theater). While we would not have been targeted as the right people for the job initially, I believe we became the right people through our continued efforts. Regardless of role and/or physical location, we managed to build a small supportive community ready to take on the daunting task of state-wide change.
From this community of CS educators, we were able to give structure to the shared vision. We gathered to write the state CS standards in 2018 which were adopted the following spring. A productive partnership with Code.org now provides free curriculum training for teachers which has impacted over 1,500 Alaskan students. Our second-largest school district, Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, defined a new CS course pathway and now offers Girls Who Code summer camps reaching almost 200 girls over the past three years. And, in August 2019, CSTA approved the Top of the World chapter to connect our far-flung Alaskan CS educators. Our hope is that these integral documents and communities will sustain and support CS education in Alaska long-term.
We are now entering the “What have we gotten ourselves into?” phase of building. The structure is sound, but the enormity of the project left to complete is both exhilarating and exhausting. CS education in Alaska has so much promise, but there is so much to do. This spring the Top of the World chapter was selected for the “Chapter-In-A-Box” grant through which we intend to develop professional development opportunities and invigorate our member community. My CSTA Equity Fellowship project “CS Playground” was run as a 1-credit CE course in my district which brought together eleven CS educators to discuss equity in the field and explore creative coding platforms. The course will be revamped for statewide rollout in 2021. Our team continues to push forward with the vision, month by month, finding effective ways to reach our CS colleagues and support professional growth.
Like any well-built home, we, its constructors, should not be its final occupants. The foundation of collaboration and community, and the structure of standards, chapters, and partnerships, should support the growth and shifting needs of future Alaska CS educators. What we’ve built is not perfect; issues that seemed tangential at the time will eventually surface and need to be fixed. The building codes will modernize and our work will need to evolve to best serve our CS students and educators. Future generations will update and build additions on to the original structure.
While the motto “North to the Future” may conjure a rugged individualism, life in Alaska isn’t possible without the support of others. Even the most self-sufficient builder seeks out a neighbor for help; my grandparents certainly could not have done it alone, and neither have we in this process. The success that Alaskan CS education has achieved is due in part to relationships with administrators, counselors, elected officials, corporate partners, CSTA, and community support. Together with our stakeholders, we continue to press in on our shared vision to build equitable CS education for all Alaskan students.